“Tamerlano”: A Grueling and Exhilarating Experience
By David Gregson, Opera West
Sunday, November 22
LOS ANGELES: For this reviewer, the great and ongoing revival of Handel’s operas began in1967 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. It was a production by the New York City Opera (then in residence as LA’s chief opera company) starring soprano Beverly Sills as Cleopatra. That was the role that helped catapult her from relative obscurity to become one of the world’s major prima donnas. Popular basso Norman Treigle sang the title role — and in those days, nobody cared a damn that a part originally written for an alto castrato was being sung in a distinctly macho lower register.
Today, more and more of the Handel operas (not everybody’s cup of tea, to be sure) have begun to surface, and even dedicated Handelians are unlikely to have experienced most of these in live performance. “Tamerlano” certainly falls into this category — but for the next several days at the LA Pavilion, Handel-hungry fans can add another resurfaced obscurity to their check list.
It’s both a grueling and an exhilarating experience! One formulaic da capo aria after another tends to wear one down a bit, but the Los Angeles Opera singers and instrumental players are truly superb — and Handel’s score begins to defeat expectations as the hours file by. By the last act, one becomes aware of having experienced a masterpiece. True, many of the arias are not the greatest the composer ever penned, but things progressively grow more compelling, culminating in a brilliant scena for tenor Placido Domingo and a gorgeous final ensemble.
Today musical purists need never fear of hearing another basso sing an alto role as in the bright/dark days of Norman Treigle. Now, as the eponymous Tamerlano, we have another brilliant artist of quite another sort, Bejun Mehta – one of the best of a big bunch. Countertenors have become a virtual industry.
Meanwhile dozens of sopranos and mezzos are all too happy to butch it up for trouser roles. Both singers and players have mastered once forgotten elements of style and ornamentation and “authentic performance practice” rules are strictly in place. Heaven help the orchestra that undertakes one of the works without a couple of theorbo necks bobbing up and down and swaying to and fro in the pit. Julius Rudel’s orchestra of 1967 seems like a distant and distorted dream.
LA has snagged a great group of people who get it right. Soprano Sarah Coburn is superb as Asteria, daughter of the captured and humiliated Turkish sultan, Bajezet (Domingo). She is the troubled plaything of the emotions and ambitions of almost all the other characters in the typically convoluted plot. She’s in love with Andronico, a Greek prince and confederate of Tamlerano, wonderfully realized “en travesti” by mezzo-soprano, Patricia Bardon. But, lusting for Asteria, Tamerlano wants to dump his intended bride, Irene, the excellent mezzo-soprano Jennifer Holloway (who spends most of her time disguised in eyeglasses ala Clark Kent in order to spy on people.) She has a friend, Leone, sung by handsome and rich toned bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, who thrilled the house with his one big number in Act Two. Here’s a guy to watch!
All of this is cannily guided by William Lacey and a group of excellent musicians from the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra. Someone, however, is certain to object to his extensive cuts in the score (almost 30 minutes are snipped away here and there), but I will not join their chorus. Lacey has provided a fine program essay explaining his reasoning.
Another sort of purist, by the way, is never, never going accept Placido Domingo singing Handel. However great an artist he may be, his years of not having to bother with Handel’s style are readily apparent in the voice and its delivery. There is a heft and drama there that some will not deem appropriate.
I, however, feel that Domingo’s “miscasting” is essential to the success of this undertaking on all levels, from the box office to the artistic. Domingo – one of the great giants in the history of opera – gives the piece a magnetic focus it would not otherwise have. Domingo’s larger-than-life persona carries over into the character of the suffering Sultan and gives the role a truly tragic dimension. Domingo is an extraordinarily special man – and as Handel’s music in Act Three ventures into new territory, Domingo brings the past solidly into the present. I would say it’s something of a tour de force – not to mention a coup de theatre (as long as I am throwing French around.)
As for the staging, God forbid that the expected authentic aspects of Handel opera production should extend to the sets and costuming. In what may one day be regarded as an inexplicable oxymoron, Handel opera performance today means strict musical authenticity combined with utterly free interpretive dramatic freedom. The general notion is that modern audiences must accept the ancient music on its own terms, but that the staging should reflect a contemporary relevancy — that it must be updated, spiced up, filled with invention, and embellished with symbolism. Elaborately choreographed stage movements are also common, although not in this current “Tamerlano” show.
This no longer very new staging approach often works very well half the time. The Bollywood inflected “Giulio Cesare” directed by David McVicar for Glyndebourne seems (for me, at least) to work on every level. A fine cast and orchestra conducted by William Christie help make this a winner. It and other effective Regietheater approaches to Handel are available on DVD.
In fact, “Tamerlano” itself is out in at least two DVDs, one of them in Blu-ray (on Opus Arte) also featuring Domingo as Bajazet. Directed and fancily choreographed by Graham Vick and Ron Howell for the Teatro Real in Madrid, this “Tamerlano” is completely different from the one the LAO uses. They’ve got the Chas Rader-Shieber/David Zinn combo (stage director and scenery/costume designer) familiar to those who have seen the dreadful recent “Don Giovanni” in Santa Fe, and the best that can be said for their efforts is these gentlemen do not destroy the opera. Once you have grasped their slightly drab, quasi-updated minimalist aesthetic, it’s all clear sailing. Nothing confuses or obscures the drama.
Love them or hate them, postmodern director’s theater has a whole set of clichés. Most of them are present here. Folding chairs mixed with more elegant seating arrangements, gray walls that move about and a ceiling studded with ordinary naked light bulbs, and a metal royal dais that can be pushed about, and redundant large windows. A cast dressed in modern business suits and uniforms sporting (and pointing) lots of guns instead of swords. Some characters get a royal treatment (Domingo, fittingly) and wear a royal robe suggesting a bygone era, or a gown that might be French Empire or God knows what. I have seen it all before – again and again. Frankly, however, I thought the Rader-Shieber/Zinn approach was superior to the Teatro Real production which was full of irritatingly pointless movement. Even with the alterations to the plot (a tragic instead of an upbeat ending), this show makes dramatic sense, and one can be thankful for that.
TAMERLANO Bejun Mehta
BAJAZET Plácido Domingo
PRINCESS ASTERIA Sarah Coburn
ANDRONICO Patricia Bardon
IRENE Jennifer Holloway
LEONE Ryan McKinny
CONDUCTOR William Lacey
DIRECTOR Chas Rader-Shieber
DESIGNER David Zinn
LIGHTING DESIGNER Christopher Akerlind
Saturday November 21, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Monday November 23, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday November 25, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Saturday November 28, 2009 2:00 p.m.
Tuesday December 1, 2009 7:30 p.m.